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Empowered by Community: A Testimony of Growth and Gratitude

In September 2015, restless and uncertain about my future post- high school, I stumbled upon a conversation about Heart of Los Angeles (HOLA). Intrigued, I decided to look into their program for high school seniors. This program, called LEAL (Learn, Empower, Aspire and Lead), paired students with mentors to help them navigate college applications and personal statements. Despite the late hour, I sent an inquiry email. To my delight, I received a warm response and was invited for an interview with Luis, who has since become a close friend. Although enrollment had closed, Luis went out of his way to connect me with a mentor named Manuel. Manuel with his long braid, flat cap, and guitar, quickly became a significant mentor who profoundly influenced my path forward.

My year at HOLA was nothing short of transformative. Laura Greenlee, the college counselor, was an incredible guide and comedienne. We met every Wednesday after school in the Laker Reading Room, the heart of the old HOLA building. Adorned with Lakers jerseys, banners, and framed posters of basketball legends like Shaquille O’Neal, the late great Kobe Bryant, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the room was painted in the team’s colors—golden yellow and deep violet. Despite it being a tight space for 30+students and their mentors, it always felt cozy.

HOLA opened doors to unforgettable experiences. During the fall semester, I joined a four-day, all-expenses-paid road trip to visit UC and CSU campuses in Northern California. This trip played a crucial role in my college decision. Additionally, HOLA helped me secure a summer job as an usher at the Hollywood Bowl, providing a shuttle service to ensure we got to and from work safely. 

One of the highlights was meeting playwright Luis Alfaro during a writing session at HOLA. His stories and writing exercises left a lasting impact on me as an aspiring writer. The most pivotal experience, however, was receiving HOLA’s largest scholarship award at the time, which enabled me to attend college tuition free. HOLA’s support extended beyond financial aid, including care packages during final exams, networking events, and professional seminars, all of which boosted my confidence and personal growth. Another memorable moment was advocating for after-school programs at the Capitol in Sacramento with Tony Brown, HOLA’s CEO. In March 2019, I joined hundreds of professionals, youth, and families in support of the California After School & Summer Challenge. We marched around the Capitol, sharing our stories and advocating for continued funding for programs like HOLA. 

Now, as a college graduate with a degree in Cultural Anthropology and a minor in Chicanx and Latinx Studies, I feel a profound sense of gratitude and a commitment to give back. I am currently a museum teacher at the Autry Museum, leading artifact-based programs for K-12 students and exploring the histories of the American West. I also engage with other nonprofit organizations in Los Angeles, such as Art Division, where I take visual arts classes, and 826LA, where I lead creative writing workshops for 6-8th graders. 

Although I miss the charm of the old HOLA building, I appreciate the new facility’s resources. My bond with HOLA remains strong as I serve as a college application mentor and a member of the Eisner Intergenerational Choir, a diverse group of singers performing for the community. My future is bright with aspirations in writing, singing, and creating visual art. I aim to publish my second poetry manuscript, venture into children’s literature, and collaborate with my younger brother on music projects. 

My time at HOLA was brief but life changing. It affirmed that this place is special and will forever hold a place in my heart.